Is your reality getting in the way of your child’s imagination?

child's imagination

Mermaids are just the beginning of a child’s imagination

I have always believed that a child’s imagination is a place where anything can and must be allowed to happen. But earlier last week, Re came home one day and said, “Mamma, teacher said that there are no fairies. And no mermaids also.”

My heart sank. I cried a little. I was angry, disappointed, depressed and sad at the same time. A revelation of this kind can only make a six-year-old’s world come crashing down. I found her words not just insensitive, but also dangerous. But I had to do something about the damage, although I could sense that Re’s voice was incredulous even as he said it.

“May be she hasn’t met a fairy called Imagination,” I said.

Re has never asked me if fairies, unicorns, mermaids exist. He just believes they do, and I have never, for the purpose of “letting him know the truth”, told him that things like that are only fantasy. I hope he never loses his sense of wonder, his inner fairy, and most importantly, his ability to fantasise. Because I don’t believe one must take fantasy lightly. And I don’t really know what the “truth’ is. 

Exchanging stories with your child is a key part of parenting; Re tells me his, I tell him mine, we read some together and nurture our little world of wonder. And how can we tell good stories if we don’t believe in fantasy? It’s our prop, our muse, something that comes to our rescue each time, even after we are all grown up. 

Oh, the things a child’s imagination can do!

When we discovered rainbows, Re began finding rainbows everywhere. In bubbles we blew. In petrol trails drenched with water. In doors, windows, streams, elevators. He found them in different shapes. Triangles, squares. octopus-shaped. Even a circle rainbow (we spotted a sundog last year from our school campus). For months, he only drew rainbows. It opened up a whole new world for him. It made our home a happier place. We are still looking for our pot of gold and we believe it exists.

C.S. Lewis once wrote a letter to his granddaughter about The Chronicles of Narnia that began:

My Dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realised that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again…

I think I am. I had reached that point where I felt too old to believe in miracles. Growing up with Re has made me believe in fairies all over again. And for that, I am thankful. He is six now, and I have already started to feel that he is growing up too fast. Very soon, he will be “too old” to build his dream castles, wear his mermaid suit, make Playdoh dresses and picnic with his princesses and fairies. He will soon be too grown up for his own good. He will soon morph into a person that says, “I’m-too-old-for-fairies!’. And yes, he will lose some of his wonder. But as a mother, I don’t want to be the person who led him there. I don’t want to be his fantasy-squasher. If that makes me an over-indulgent, removed-from-reality mother, so be it.

The gift of wonder and imagination is the right of every child and we have no business to deny them that. Because our thoughts, ideas and more importantly, our imagination are just another dimension of who we are. And whenever I lose hope, I remember this by Roald Dahl:

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

For all those who told me to not read happily-ever-after stories to my child, including teachers at school, I have this to say: Sometimes our reality hinders us from believing in love and wonder, but that doesn’t mean we stop our children from believing in it. The fact that we have started listening to TEDtalks on how to dream and how to imagine explains that we are already bankrupt in our minds as a race.

So I am going to allow him to dream for as long as his heart will allow him. If we believe that things don’t exist just because we haven’t seen them, that’s bordering on arrogance. I really worry for us as people. I worry for his teacher too. As a start, I wrote her a note:

“Dear teacher. I know you don’t believe in mermaids or fairies, but we do. And maybe you should give it a shot as well. Because the world would be such a boring place if we didn’t believe in magic.”

She hasn’t replied to it. But if she says, “I don’t believe in fairies,” one more time, I am going to unleash some bad pixie dust on her. And introduce her to a certain Miss Tinkerbell.

Meanwhile, Re and I are working on spreading pixie dust all over the world. And we need all the help we can get.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 16th August, 2015)


What I learned about fairy tales from my child

Our little family of three went to watch Disney’s new rendition of Cinderella at the cinemas last weekend. I was as excited as Re was. How would she be? How lovely would her blue gown be? What would her castle look like? How evil would her stepmother be? What would the prince be like? How would her carriage look? How will the lizard turn into the coachman? And the mice to horses? And the most important question: What would her glass slipper look like?

While Re and I were both riveted, my husband kept turning to him, squeezing his hand, wondering if the harshness of the stepmother and starkness of evil would be disconcerting. Re told him with an equanimity that only a child raised on fairy tales will have: “Wait, she will be sended away from the kingdom soon.”

The child was indeed the father of man in our case.

As a new mother, I often faced the anti-fairytale brigade. They are too black and white, they said. “They glorify concepts of good and evil. They are full of evil stepmothers and witches and fairies and make your child believe in the supernatural.” Another voice said that fairy tales give you the illusion of a happily ever after for everyone and life is not like that.

I paid no heed, and decided to listen to Albert Einstein who once said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

In the earlier school that Re went to, I was cautioned: “Let him not read too many fairy tales.” It was too late, as we had read most of them in their various versions. While my friends were still arguing about gender fluidity on social media, Re and I were playing with wands, ball gowns, castles and of course, princesses. When people said I should be letting Re know that there was no real Santa Claus, I went and got ourself a real Christmas tree.

Children need fairy tales to make sense of the world. Because sometimes, fantasy can be a great way to reveal the larger truth. When there are no rules to be followed, the truth is often clearer. Like any other good story, a good fairy tale can provide a reference point to your child. It teaches us about hope, courage, hard work, justice. And above all, love and kindness, as Cinderella’s mother would say.

But even if broken down to its most simplistic form, fairy tales help the child’s imagination. And imagination is everything. A child who can imagine fairy wings and magic bean stalks is also capable of imagining other wondrous things. And what can be wrong with a little bit of color?

As adults, we forget to believe in our imaginary worlds. But there are still things in our subconscious that get awakened by fairy tales. They take us away from our everyday world, they free our minds to see the intangible with special clarity. They make us believe in magic. If we are afraid of magic, there is no hope for us as human beings.

Richard Dawkins, prominent atheist, evolutionary biologist and author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion had provoked a debate about the impact of fairy tales when speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival sometime last year. Among other things, Dawkins said that it was harmful to read fairy tales to children because it instilled a false belief in the supernatural. He has since denied the claims, adding on Twitter that fairy stories may “on balance” have a positive effect on children as they grow up by fostering critical thinking.

No matter how politically incorrect stories about evil stepmothers, damsels in distress, and cannibalistic old women may be, fairy tales are here to stay. And that’s a good thing, say the experts. “They work through so many personal and cultural anxieties, yet they do it in a safe, ‘once upon a time’ way,” says Maria Tatar, professor at Harvard College who writes about, and teaches classes on, fairy tales. “Fairy tales have a real role in liberating the imagination of children. No matter how violent they are, the protagonist always survives.”

Writer and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed fairy tales are important to children’s development because the main characters – many of them children themselves – demonstrate pluck, and the ability to triumph over adversity in a world of giants and cruel adults.

The joy is when your child tells you that magic is not real, but still allows him and you the possibility of being enthralled by it.

It is possible to believe in magic, yet know that it is not real.

It is possible to know that bad things happen to bad people, but sometimes they can also happen to good people.

For every Snow White waiting to be kissed by her prince, there is a Pocahontas, who can kiss her Prince and let him go. For Re, they both are heroes, perhaps the latter a shade more than the former.

I don’t think children believe in absolute good and absolute evil. Re told me once, “If you were good, and then you became evil , you can become good again.”

Or this about Cinderella’s stepmother: “Well, she is not a mean person. She just does mean things sometimes.”

Or this about Pocahontas: “Sometimes, you can do true-love’s kiss, but you don’t have to marry!”

The beautiful thing is, until my child believes in fairy tales, I can believe in them too. And that perhaps is the greatest gift a child can give you. Because if your heart remembers that the impossible is possible, you will try it…and sometimes, it works.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 30th March, 2015)